Former SPAA president and Advantage Travel Partnership corporate director, Ken McLeod, shares his personal account of sailing on Celebrity Eclipse as the world began closing its borders.

The coronavirus was an emerging news item on the TV when we left the UK on a flight to Rio de Janeiro on February 20, although we had no concerns about travelling. Our arrival coincided with the city’s annual carnival. I should have known things weren’t going entirely smoothly when our night was hit by a huge thunderous rainstorm that deluged the streets, flooded everywhere and left us sheltering for several hours in a restaurant.

We had wonderful times visiting Iguazú Falls and Patagonia before joining Celebrity Eclipse in Buenos Aires and setting sail on March 1 for a 15-day cruise around the horn finishing in Santiago. Or so we thought… we were actually only six hours from docking in San Antonio and relative freedom, when it was announced that no cruise ships could enter any Chilean ports. Up to that point I thought the Chilean people were really friendly and helpful. Turns out the president isn’t one of them.

The news from home at that point was getting increasingly worse with our old EU colleagues in Italy and France showing distressing signs of the coronavirus effects. I realised some time prior to that, having been in the travel business for over 40 years, that I’d never seen anything like this as the news unfolded.

We anchored off Valparaiso for three days, while Celebrity negotiated with the authorities to allow us to refuel and get provisions on board for the long ten-day haul to our new destination, San Diego.

It’s at this point I have to pay tribute first of all to Celebrity Cruises which, I have no doubt, had been trying to work miracles back in their Miami HQ. As far as the crew of the Eclipse was concerned, they were simply outstanding. We were fully informed throughout the day by ‘Super Captain Leo’ and the rest of the crew helped not only run the ship, but take care of numerous processes, from helping passengers get last-minute ESTAs for the US, to sourcing much-needed medicines, and working on a range of passport formalities.

As for the entertainment, our cruise director Alejandro was an absolute saviour and joy to watch and listen to. Argentinean by birth, and thinking everything Argentinean is the best in the world, his humour was exactly what everyone needed. Irreverent, self deprecating and hard working, he should have his own TV show. He had us all laughing every night despite the circumstances.

So yes, Celebrity has been the best, and we cannot fault them, but we cannot forget the other cruise ships in South America and around the world. Silversea, Azamara, Princess, Holland America – they were all sailing with passengers on board and not allowed to disembark.

As for us, we had 2,765 of passengers and 1,200 crew. Sixty-four Chilean nationals were allowed to leave in San Antonio in exchange for twice the number of cases of Chilean wine…

The ship provided free wifi and open bars so the siege mentality soon set in. We have hugely diverse nationalities on board, but everyone was, in the main, very friendly and polite and all speaking to everyone else. We classified them into sections – the “Intelligencia” (those that know what is going on and understand), the “Monied” (who don’t think anything applies to them) and the Idiots – (the few who don’t listen to announcements and don’t comply with requests to complete tasks, such as handing in passports, in some cases for hours, therefore delaying the wonderful crew from getting things done.) There should be a law against Idiots taking cruises. The others we can handle.

However, I was also mindful of several challenges some passengers had. They all had stories, some of which made us feel our situation was minor. Many had to have medical procedures when they got home. For example, one lady needed cancer treatment, and another, whose business was going downhill, could do little about it from the high seas. It was these stories that were incongruous while on a luxury cruise liner, but brought into reality of what life was like back home and what millions of people were and still are, going through.

So as we set course for the 9,000km trip to San Diego, we felt guilty at not being able to contribute back home while being treated royally by Celebrity. Our thoughts were always with those family, friends and colleagues, especially within the travel industry, who were and are going through the toughest of times, and with the hope that we can recover quickly enough to ensure people can continue to cruise the world over.